“I wrote a few children’s books. Not on purpose.”Steven Wright * “Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public.”
Paulo Coelho (one of my favorite quotes…)
There’s no question I’m a writer. I’m not a paid writer; at least not much, I should say. I don’t monetize my blog, despite sometimes getting a lot of traffic. People drive by train wrecks, so attention isn’t always to one’s benefit.
Whether I’m a good writer is in the eye of the beholder.
More specifically, even Stephen King or Pat Conroy have detractors. Some people like steak with ketchup, others prefer theirs rare and bleeding.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King
Someone recently critiqued me, saying that I am the Thomas Kincade of writing. They didn’t mean it as a compliment. (Kinkade died from alcohol and valium when he was 54.)
I took it as a compliment in the sense that he found a way to live while doing what he loved. The rest of his life wasn’t so golden. For some, his work was seen as overly sentimental or garish.
After I wrote this, someone asked me to add, “You’re the Earnest Hemingway of bullsh*t.”
I love writing, even as I bedevil people with my imperfections and shotgun-style of sentimentality and offbeat humor.
I know it’s not for everyone. Nothing is.
If you hate the way I write, I rarely take it personally.
There is a magic, though, in knowing that anyone is hearing my words in their head as they read. For a moment, I’m connecting directly to another person.
This is one of the strongest powers of writing, the internet, and social media.
As technology advances and reading for pleasure declines, connections to other people always have value.
I hate that a lot of people are nervous about writing or worrying about their command of the impossible rules of English. Writing is communication, not perfection.
When I’m in the zone and writing, time and loneliness dissipate. * P.S. “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” ‒ Kingsley Amis
“The internet does NOT make people stupider. It gives the stupider people more reach. And you’re one of them, X.”
I think this person doesn’t like my writing.
I wonder why they keep reading?
On the same day the above fan wrote to me, another friend reached out to tell me how much I’ve been on her mind, and how much she appreciates reading the wide range of things I share. I was touched. As with so many others, I had no idea she read much of my meanderings.
To my friend who reached out, thank you. Kind words are like sunshine on a cool October morning.
PS For those who reached out privately and shared their stories in response to my post “Addiction Road,” thank you. I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of direct engagement. Those affected by addiction often can’t find a way to succinctly bare their souls. But I can say it is liberating to yield. It’s the only way for most of our problems and mental health. We all share the same humanity, whether it is beautiful moments or debilitating pain.
His name was Mister Margaret. Everyone called him that. He was around sixty, the indeterminate kind of sixty, and in fantastic shape. He walked around town often. How he stayed in shape was a mystery. He never wore a hat and also was never quite clean-shaven. You could tell he was observant. No matter where his head was turned, you could see that his eyes followed everything.
Away from prying ears, people speculated how the name came to be his. Not me. I had been initially curious, that’s true. Unlike my fellow townspeople, though, I just asked Mister Margaret one early morning. I’ve learned that life is too short to avoid a momentary bit of possible awkwardness. He was outside the diner, sitting on the uncomfortable curb along the street, holding a coffee cup. I learned that if it wasn’t raining, he always took his third cup of coffee outside to drink it. “Ain’t no reason to be indoors all the time. I want to see the world, and I imagine the world might want to see me a bit, too,” he’d told Joshua, the diner owner.
I sat down a few feet away from Mister Margaret, awkwardly folding my legs against the pavement. I wasn’t as fit as him, and my knees and hips reminded me to do everything with caution.
“Can I ask you a question, Mister Margaret? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. How’d you get the name?” I smiled, hoping he would forgive my directness.
He laughed. “Yeah, I’ll tell you. I know people want to know. I hear whispers. And because it is a terrible story, one you probably can’t guess, you can’t regret knowing. That’s what knowledge does to us. It opens us and we can’t go back once we know something.” He paused. I nodded. As if we’d shaken hands and swore an oath, Mister Margaret started talking.
“My wife died about a year earlier. I had a great business along Main Street in my hometown. I killed a young woman one Saturday afternoon.” He paused, knowing that he’d thrown me a curveball. “She ran across the street without looking. I hit her, going forty-five miles an hour. The impact broke her all over and flung her body further than you’d believe. After the County Sheriff ruled it to be an accident, a lot of the girl’s family got anger and grief mixed up in their hearts. A month after I killed her, I walked out of the grocery store to find myself facing her father, a man everyone called Mister. He had a knife and told me he was going to kill me. I didn’t doubt him. He lunged at me in front of several witnesses. I sidestepped him and hit him in the side of the head as hard as I could. Two things, though. I didn’t really sidestep him as much I thought. He stuck that knife five inches up into my belly. I struck him so hard he fell. His head hit one of those concrete carstops in front of the store. He never woke up. His daughter’s name? Margaret. After three weeks in the hospital, I got discharged, and I sold everything I had and moved here for a fresh start. It seemed right to take both of their names as a reminder. You can look it up, if you’re inclined to do so. And that’s the story of my name.”
He looked at me intensely, waiting to see what I might say.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t run over someone named Turd,” I said. I was a bit horrified I’d said the words out loud. I was trying to be funny.
To my surprise, Mister Margaret began to laugh like I’d told the best joke in the world. He threw his head back, and he began to shake and cough with laughter. Tears streamed down his face, and I grinned as I watched.
“I haven’t laughed like that in ten years!” he said. “I guess that means we’re going to be friends. By the way, friend, what is your name? It better not be Asshat.”
We both laughed. We finished our respective cups of coffee, watching the town around us.
I have a confession to make, which will prove how dumb I am. I didn’t know until today that you WRITE on your blog. Months ago, I clicked on your gravatar and didn’t see any content. There might not have been when I did. Yesterday, I saw another tab on my WordPress toolbar for followers. I didn’t know I could see the followers, either. Duh. And I didn’t realize that you had a “follow” button when I saw your name on the list.
I clicked it. A little bit ago, I opened my Outlook folder containing all my blog notifications. To my horror, I saw that some of them included notifications that you’d added new content.
To say that I felt stupid is an understatement.
You’ve been a constant reader of my lunacy. The volume and length of what I write wear most casual readers out. I joke that if they’re reading my posts, they can honestly say, “Yes, I do a lot of reading,” without feeling as if they are lying. If hand-writing were still a thing, I’d have to buy ink by the gallon. I’d write ink instead of pencil because I loathe perfectionism. (And often even second drafts, much to my cousin’s horror. 🙂 )
And given my propensity to tell people to write (and share) their stories, I’m a dumbass for not seeing you’d posted some.
Regardless of how it happened, somehow, I know my stupidity lies at the bottom of that well of explanation.
I know you’ll write something clever to deflect the apology – and that’s okay. Secretly, though? Yeah, we know I’m a dumbass.
I wrote an intensely personal email. It laid bare some of my recent experiences.
Because I had multiple email addresses in my contacts for the intended recipient, I chose an alternate one. Due to my fumbling fingers, I scrolled the available addresses accidentally and chose an unintended one.
And hit send.
I didn’t realize I had done so for two days, so ‘unsend’ wasn’t a viable option.
Because it was done, I wrote the unintended recipient and explained what I’d done, acknowledging he or she would have undoubtedly have read the email.
A week later, I got a reply. Yes, he or she had. They wished me luck.
After ten seconds of horror, I reminded myself that secrecy was its own problem and then laughed about it.
The story pops into my head sometimes, especially when I’m writing emails.
“But did you die?” is a good response to this story…
I saw a man using a standard two-wheel hand dolly move a cumbersome couch across the parking lot as I drove by. Because I’m not on a schedule anymore, I slowed and pulled into the parking lot. As I did so, he placed the dolly carefully so that the couch was vertical, undoubtedly to rest for a moment. He had the look of anyone older than thirty when confronted with ridiculous tasks such as moving furniture. I parked and exited my vehicle.
Forgetting the standard rules of social etiquette, I approached him and said, “Where are we moving this couch to?” He didn’t hesitate. “Onto that beat-up old red truck over there.”
I didn’t even turn to look. I noticed the truck as I pulled in. No doubt it had been a workhorse of a truck for twenty years, even as it slowly degenerated into a pile of parts that barely moved on four wheels. With no further words, he tilted the couch, and I carefully picked up the other end. We walked quickly across the parking lot and, without any coordination, lifted it and set it in the bed of the truck. He tied it quickly.
“Thanks,” he said.
“We’re not done. Don’t you want help unloading it? “
“Well, that’s nice, but you don’t know where I’m going with this couch.”
I laughed. “Let’s go. I’ll ride with you, or I can follow you.”
He didn’t ask me twice, nor did he counter with the usual, “Are you Sure?”
“Get in, ” he said.
When he asked, “How do you know I’m not a serial killer?” I replied with one of my favorite jokes: “The odds of there being TWO serial killers in the same vehicle are extremely low.” He hesitated a second, processed the joke, and then laughed. “That’s clever.” I said, “It’s not my joke.” He laughed again. “Well, it’s mine now.”
I didn’t know if we were going across town or to Nebraska.
“Do you mind if I smoke,” he said as he started the engine. It grumbled and rumbled.
“Go ahead. As long as you don’t mind that I might spontaneously break out in song.” I grinned. So did he.
“We’re not going far. I got a really cheap apartment in Springdale. Not too far from the airport. Do you know the area?”
I hesitated. “Yes, I do. I just moved from there. I got divorced last month. I haven’t been back to Springdale since.” It was an honest admission.
“I’m getting a divorce myself. I found out last Friday. Coming home and finding another man sleeping on the couch kind of was kind of a giveaway.” He shrugged.
“Okay, you win this round! By the way, my name is X.” After a minute or so of me reciting my litany of name-related jokes, he told me his name was Jimmy. Were I that type of person, I’d swear I heard my cousin Jimmy laughing from the grave with his raucous laugh in my head. Both Jimmys would have loved to have a beer or ten together; I could tell.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked him.
“Yeah.” He nodded.
“Don’t you have more furniture?” It didn’t feel awkward to ask him.
“Yes, but after I threw my wife’s boyfriend off the couch, I told her that is all I’m taking. I’m going to use it as a bed, too. I don’t need all the other stuff. Look where it got me.” As he said it, I had a flash of my own spartan, minimalist life. I laughed.
Before he could ask, I said, “I’m a minimalist, too. All my furniture is in the living room.”
“For real?” he asked, a little incredulously.
“Yes, and two big-screen TVs in there, too. It’s ridiculous. And it’s mine.” I hadn’t said “It’s mine” with any dignity before then. It felt authentic as I said it, a verbalized insight into my head.
He told me his story in brief snippets as we drove. As was passed the line into Springdale, nothing noteworthy happened. It was my first return since the moving truck came to my old house on July 30th.
His new apartment building wasn’t much to look at. When we pulled in, a group of three Latinos was standing near the building, staring under the hood of a Honda. I spoke to them and told them that Jimmy was their new neighbor. Jimmy looked at me in surprise, hearing me speak Spanish. I told Jimmy to introduce himself. He did so, awkwardly.
When he walked to the back of his truck, I told him, “Be friendly. You’ll never be short a man to help you with furniture and a lot of other things if you do. Whatever Spanish you speak, don’t worry about being nervous. They had to learn our BS language.”
Jimmy laughed. “Entiendo,” he said. It was my turn to laugh.
“Don’t get excited. It’s about all I know.”
I nodded. “An effort is enough, though. For a lot of things in life.”
His apartment was on the first floor, and we went inside with the couch without breaking anything.
“Quickest move I ever made, X,” he said. “Do you want a beer? I’ve got some.”
I shook my head ‘no.’ “Do you have any diet tonic water?” It’s what I craved, but the odds of him having such a thing was unlikely.
“No. It’s beer or water. Or I can buy you lunch while I drive you back.”
Jimmy stood in the mostly empty apartment and drank a light beer. When he finished it, he moved to throw it into the trash. He realized he didn’t have a trash can. “I’ve got a list a mile long of things I need like a trash can.” I tilted my head to acknowledge I knew the truth of that statement.
We went outside to the truck. Jimmy waved over at the group of Latinos, all of whom were intently busy doing nothing with the Honda. They waved back.
Making our way back to Fayetteville, I mentioned my favorite places to eat in Springdale and how nice downtown Springdale had become. Jimmy was largely unaware of how many places he could get a beer, good food, and a little music without spending a fortune. “Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.”
Unlike you might imagine, the conversation flowed easily. It seemed like we’d known each other for a year. When we pulled into the parking lot of his old apartment, Jimmy pointed to his dolly. It sat in the same place he left it.
“Do you need help with anything else?” It seemed appropriate to offer help if he needed it.
“Nah. Just clothes and bathroom stuff. That’s it. I’m starting completely fresh except for the couch. Thanks, though.” Jimmy stuck out his hand, and I shook it.
On a whim, I pulled out my index cards and jotted my phone number on one. “In case you get bored and want to have a beer or fancy Italian coffee sometime. And if not, good look with the new life, okay.”
Jimmy walked over to his dolly to retrieve it as I walked the short distance to my ridiculous small car. As I pulled away, Jimmy waved again.
I wondered what he’d make of his life.
His name was Jimmy, and he needed help. I gave him what I could, and that might be enough.
I sat on the warm ground, watching the sky grow dark. August had come, filled with angry heat, absent rain, and upset souls. The virus had surged, melting away hope for a return to the normalcy of a troubled world. I whispered your name into the encroaching shadows and silence. Around me, the insects awoke and did the same, speaking their alien language in accompaniment. Until the mosquitoes made their appearance, there would be a pleasant truce between human and insect. I silently sat, struggling to count the emerging stars against the luminescence of the city reflected in the sky, With each appearance, I wished there was a way to find my spotless mind. Because that quiet peace eluded me, I remained seated in the tall grass, knowing that tomorrow’s obligations were racing toward me. My secret place is near a busy road lined with scented honeysuckle. No one could see me as I sat. And I saw no one, except for my own solitary soul. There was room in the grass for more than one. But for now, it is just me, wishing it were not so. Of course, there is hope for tomorrow. Each of us has an unannounced last day and few of us know that during that day, our feet will grow motionless and the future grinds to a halt. It’s why I lingered in this grass, my heart whispering bittersweetly to itself. In the air, honeysuckle. In my heart, a smaller jar of time pulsed with one less firefly. Still, I smiled. Though the moment was unshared, it was mine.
The woman sat by the long window of the coffee shop, making ridiculous and exaggerated faces at her laptop screen. I sat at least ten feet away, studiously not looking directly at her. Her hair was dyed a deep jade hue and tied into a ponytail, one which seemed to be centered on nothing except perhaps imagination. She wore a red shirt and had a long blue tie loosely around her neck. The tie was thrown over her left shoulder.
My coffee was too hot and as a result, I found myself furiously blowing on it. I realized that this was largely ineffective, given that the lid was still on the cup. I laughed. As I did, I looked briefly toward the green-haired woman. She was looking directly at me. I quickly looked away. And then back. She was still looking in my direction.
She motioned with her hand for me to join her at her table.
Not sure about what might happen next, I took my laptop and coffee and walked to the window, pulled the chair away from the table, and sat down.
“Hi, I’m Sue,” the woman said, smiling. “You must be John,” she said.
I hesitated. “No, I’m not John at all. I’m Kirk.”
“You look like a John. Are you sure your name isn’t John? Take a moment and think about it.” She continued to smile.
“Uh… No. I’m Kirk,” I said. I knew I sounded a bit stupid.
She reached her left hand across the table, presumably to shake mine. I thought about putting a sugar pack in her hand. Instead, I grabbed her hand as she shook it.
Sue turned her laptop around and showed me the screen. On it, a picture of me from a few years ago was displayed. My mind went blank for a second as I tried to bridge the gap of just meeting her and seeing my picture on her laptop.
Sue laughed. “Relax, Kirk. This is something I do.”
“For a living?” I asked.
“No, as a hobby. I write freelance to pay the bills. That and buy and sell nonsense on the internet.” She turned her laptop back in her direction.
“What kind of writing do you do?” Writers always fascinate me.
“All kinds. I even write dialog for screenwriters. That’s fun. Want to hear an example?” She quizzically titled her head, knowing I was going to say yes.
“Okay. A couple of years ago, a writer for an ABC sitcom needed an excuse to get someone to a cemetery. So I had the character say, ‘Anytime I need to cry a lot, I go to the cemetery, because no one questions someone crying there.’ That’s pretty good, huh?”
I was already nodding my head in agreement.
“Another one? I had the idea that the character should put a greenscreen inside his car, so that everyone would think he was at home, instead of driving to Dallas.” She laughed. “But that’s been done six hundred and two times now, thanks to the pandemic.”
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
“I accidentally burned down the neighbor’s house when I was 14,” Sue said.
When I looked at her face to gauge her sincerity, she winked.
“That is some secret, yes,” I told her.
“It’s not a secret now, though, is it?”
“No, but I also meant what’s your secret for success?” I smiled.
“I have no clue. It’s mostly been luck and being in right place at the wrong time and sometimes vice versa. But you know that.” She smiled.
“Well, I guess I’m in the right place at the right time now, aren’t I?” I laughed.
“Touché! Ha! But yes. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”
I leaned back in my chair, not questioning her assumption. It turned out she was right.
Two hours later, I knew both nothing and everything about her. It seemed like the best start possible.
Her birth name was Dilemma. No one called her that except for me. Everyone else called her “Lemma.” Dilemma told people she had no idea where her birth mother came up with the name. That wasn’t true, though, as I learned one late Friday night. We had separately exited our studio apartments to find a quiet place outside. The other two or three tenants preferred to sit in the patio area. I preferred being alone.
We were both sitting cross-legged on the plank porch, holding bottles of tequila and gin, swapping sips from each other’s bottles. We’d have splinters tomorrow. Tomorrow was a year away when I was with her. Dilemma occasionally pretended to spit into whichever bottle she was about to hand to me. I responded by licking around the rim of the bottle and laughing.
Over the last few weeks, we began to seek each other’s company in the evenings. Most of the time, we sat in silence. Some nights, Dilemma wanted to talk. She was well-educated, though she wouldn’t divulge any specifics. I knew she could speak two other languages and at times I suspected she might have a photographic memory.
Dilemma leaned towards me, a little unbalanced. She pretended to whisper as I leaned toward her. She then shouted, “My Dad told my Mom he’d kill her if she insisted on giving birth to me. That was the dilemma.”
I nodded, waiting for her to continue. Dilemma always had a follow-up or footnote. Sometimes she waited a week to connect details to something she mentioned.
“Needless to say, Dad woke up the next morning with a gun stuck in his crotch. Mom had it cocked, too, no pun intended. ‘You have until 9 a.m. to get out of this house and out of my life. If you don’t, well…’ and pushed the gun painfully into his boxers. He just nodded. That’s what my Aunt Dill told me, anyway. I like that story.” Dilemma nodded as if to punctuate it was my turn to say something. I made a mental note to ask about Aunt Dill later.
Just as I was about to utter something hilarious, Dilemma shouted, “Hey, I wasn’t done talking!”
“Okay, fire away,” I told her.
“I was going to say, it’s your turn to talk now.” She grinned.
“Did you know that your nickname Lemma means several different things? Like part of a plant, or a Greek word for ‘assumption?'” I nodded, to pass the conversation back to her.
“Well, you’re a stalker, aren’t you, Dane? Ha!” She took an excessively long drink of tequila.
“Are you making a play on the words ‘plant’ and ‘stalker?'” I asked her. “If you are, you can do better.” I laughed.
“No, better is for jerks. Can I ask you a favor? Would you lean over and kiss me? I know we’ve never kissed. That’s okay. Just get it over with.” She winked at me.
I should have known better. As I leaned in to peck her on the lips, she kissed me and wrapped her hand around my head, stuck her tongue between my lips, then surprised me by spewing a surprising amount of tequila in my mouth. She howled with laughter as I coughed and sputtered. As my eyes burned, Dilemma laughed harder.
As I regained my breath, I asked her, “What did you do that for?”
Dilemma leaned in and kissed me on the mouth.
“I wanted you to know that if you go forward with me, life is going to have a lot of tequila-in-the-mouth moments.” She smiled and took another drink. She winked again and asked me, “Do you trust me?”
I laughed, leaned over, and kissed her again. Whether there would be more tequila was anyone’s guess.